African travel journal – one year ago today – I complain like a Karen

Yesterday was our first full day really in Africa, when we got out of the airport/hotel complex in Johannesburg to the Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana . This place is posh, with a vaguely colonial style and dozens of staff, smiling and jumping to attention. Indeed, service is both overly attentive and not quite what we wanted.Four or five people serve us at each meal, and yet service is slow and it can be difficult to find someone if you need something. I ordered a rump roast for dinner last night from a gemsbok, a type of antelope. It was delicious, but very tough, and I sawed at it for minutes with a standard table knife, looking around for a server to ask for a sharp steak knife. But there was no one to be found. There had been two separate people there a few minutes ago to take our drink orders, separately and with unnecessary redundancy.

When choosing our meals, Julie pointed out one dish, which was labeled as spicy, and asked how spicy it was. The waitress smiled and said promptly that it is spicy. Julie said, yes, but HOW spicy. The waitress smiled and said it’s “spicy.” Yes, said Julie, but is it VERY spicy. On a scale of one to five, Julie said, where five is extremely spicy and 1 is not spicy at all, how spicy is it? The waitress said, “I’ll have to ask the chef,” and left the table, returning with the answer. “Two.”

Another example: Breakfast yesterday was a buffet of cold food. There was a server at the buffet, a smiling young woman with a “TRAINEE” badge. I asked her if I could get any hot food, and she said no, this was all cold food. The buffets had veils in front of them, I expect to keep out flies, and in some areas when I wanted something it was this young woman’s job to lift the veil so I could serve myself, as I would at any buffet. Flavored yogurt and fresh and canned fruits.

When I got to the table, the waitress brought over our menus. Of hot breakfasts. “B-b-b-b-b-ut,” I said to myself. “The waitress over there just said ‘no hot food.” And why is there a waitress serving at a buffet – doesn’t that defeat the whole “buffet” concept, making it more of a “cafeteria.” Then I realized that the waitress was thinking I was asking if there was hot food at her station, and she answered truthfully. I did not ask her if there was hot food elsewhere, so she did not answer that question.

The whole place is like that. Communications difficulties. But the food has been delicious, and we had very nice sandwiches for lunch, sitting out on a deck while we could see giraffes and elephants not too far away. So, we are having a fantastic time.

We got lucky with an upgrade to our room – a whole suite, two bedrooms and a sitting room. Everything is spacious and beautiful.

I took more than 300 photos yesterday alone. Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, I chatted with a fellow Californian who was taking no photos at all. He and his wife and daughter had been traveling 10 days. He said he’d been on trips with people where everyone was taking photos and he took none, because he figured the photos part was covered and he was free to just enjoy the experience. I endorse this point of view, and you can expect the rate of photography to trickle off as the trip progresses. But for now I am having a great time taking photos.

This is a philosophy I’ve been thinking of for some time actually, how social media makes us observers of our own lives, taking photos or (if you’re like me) thinking of things to say about what you’re doing. So yeah the long term goal for this trip is less photos and thinking of things to say online, and more being in the moment. But for now I’m doing the other thing.

I get the idea this fellow I was talking with worked in tech, like me. But I’d made another rule for myself this trip - if anyone asks what I do I’ll gladly tell them, but I won’t volunteer my work when I’m introducing myself, which is a thing that I’m told is characteristically American in social situations.

Yesterday was very scheduled, and I gather that will be typical of this trip. Up at 5 am for a dawn game drive, get driven around the bush on a flatbed open truck with padded seating for about two and a half hours. It’s cold in the morning, temperatures in the high 40s or low 50s this time of year. We wear light winter coats.

Then it’s back to the lodge for breakfast at 8:30 am.

River cruise at 11 am, then back to the hotel for lunch at 12:30 pm. There’s a choice between eating in the hotel restaurant, which is an enclosed deck, nearly like being indoors, or on an open air deck. We chose the open air deck and feel we chose wisely, with beautiful food and delicious views. I meant to say delicious food and beautiful views, but I like the other way.

After lunch I tried to have a nap but only got in about 20 minutes. Yesterday was the day that jet lag hit me hard. I got about three hours of sleep Sunday, the night before we left California, then only a few minutes of sleep on the 24 hours or so we were in transit. Then I was wide awake at 1:30 am Thursday. I don’t think those days add up, by the way. Traveling for 48 hours through nine time zones gets confusing, like a complicated time travel Doctor Who episode.

I laid in bed until about 3:30, and heard a lion roar not too far from us, which was thrilling. The lion did not sound anti-Semitic in his food preferences, like she would gladly have eaten me. I was glad to be indoors behind thick walls. I got out of bed and sat reviewing photos and writing in this journal - that was the most recent entry before this one – until it was time for the morning game drive.

Even the afternoon attempt at a nap was refreshing, and we were up again for a 3 pm tea. The tea was served by about a half-dozen servers dishing up tea and savory and sweet pastries. Again, too much service – that’s 2-3x the number of people needed to do the job. Or, really, we didn’t need any servers at all; just put out the beverages and cakes and let people help themselves. But instead we had a half-dozen people serving up food.

I let Julie order first, as a gentleman does, and everything she ordered sounded good so I just said “the same” to each. The servers thought that was hilarious; they laughed and laughed.

A few days before we left for Africa, I talked with a friend and former colleague and the conversation turned to our upcoming trip. I had completely forgotten until that moment that this woman I was talking with had LIVED for a time in South Africa. I asked her for tips and she pointed out that we were traveling to third world countries, and we should leave our American expectations about service behind. Things that seem like they should be easy will be difficult (steak knives, hot breakfast). Things that seem like they should be difficult will be easy. We’ve only been in Africa a couple of days but I think I’m starting to understand.


Chobe Game Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana – Lovely surprise at breakfast this morning. The waitstaff came over with a cake and sang “happy birthday” and “happy anniversary” and one or two songs with an African rhythm, all done with African multipart harmonies, one of the women ululating occasionally and little synchronized dance moves. It was all very beautiful and silly and fun.

I had temporarily forgotten that this was a celebration of a milestone birthday for Julie. The birthday itself is October. And also a celebration of our 25th anniversary, which was in December.

I suspect the guiding hand for this and one or two other pleasant surprises, is the travel agent who helped us arrange the trip , Vanessa Hensley at African Portfolio. So far, we have found working with her and the company to be a fantastic experience – I rate them 7 out of a possible 5 stars.

Julie did about 85% of the work with Vanessa on planning the trip. I kicked in for the final few weeks but mostly my role has been showing up. I’m pretty good at showing up.

River cruise in a few minutes.

I wrote a longer journal entry this morning but I don’t know if I will ever post it. I was cranky at the time. Nothing helps you get over being cranky like cake for breakfast. With occasional ululation.


Dinner tonight: Buffet style, served on linen covered tables in a clearing over a short boardwalk from the lodge. Marimba band playing one the path a bit of a distance away, far enough to be pleasant but not overwhelming. Thandi was our waitress again, for the fifth time or so. We’re starting to get fond of her. I had steak filet with a pepper sauce. There was a tasty local bread, a distant cousin to naan. I asked the server what kind of bread it is; he said “local bread.” Ah.

One of the foods was ox tail. A woman did not understand what the serverwas saying, so he said “ox,” then stuck out his butt, pointed at it and said “tail.”

I also had poached pair in red wine, for dessert.

Now Julie is packing. I already have, as far as I can. I made a separate pile for things I brought and now regret including three pairs of heavy cargo pants, and two external power supplies for our gadgets. I also wish I’d brought a camera strap instead of the camera holster I did bring, and I wish I’d brought a light knapsack to use as a daybag, in addition to my computer bag, which is good for travel days but too much to bring on drives and boat cruises.


Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner